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In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh: A Traveller’s Tale

In an Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh

Travel writing is a literary genre that one might look upon with a degrading attitude; a Darwinian approach of the sort would be enough to send the branch of writing straight down to the bottom of the pyramid of genres, or as seventeenth century’s European academics would put it, the hierarchy of genres. Of course, a piece of text that lies within the premises of travel writing could not be compared or even regarded to be akin of a literary effort that belongs for instance, to the highly estimated genre of epics. This is not, however, by any means the end of course of the intriguing genre. In his book “Travel Writing- The New Critical Idiom” Carl Thompson implements the seeds of a promising future for the genre, by stating that travel writing has witnessed a form of promotion with regards to its literary position in the virtual hierarchy against other forms of literature. In a sense, travel writing is prone to be rendered by some readers to be a somewhat superficial form of writing. Nonetheless, this stereotype could effortlessly be battered to the degree of absolution by the enthralling In an Antique Land by Amitav Gosh.

One is not entitled to decipher much from a book’s cover. Yet, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land seems to spill a sense of its definitely alluring gist all over the book’s exterior. A vibe of dust is sprinkled upon the ancient atmosphere that dominates the coloration of the book and much of its essence; a striving youth strides towards the nothingness of a dimension beyond space and time, with several books as means of guidance throughout his journey.  “History in the guise of a traveler’s tale”, reads the sub-title; such statement is at utmost clarity of the kind of depth the pages hold, which is the reason why the book is a sufficiently robust piece of armor against the alleged superficiality of its peers. A reader of Gosh’s book is simply privileged the rank of being a spectator that is experiencing a multi-dimensional journey; moreover, Gosh does not leave any loose threads and quite craftily inserts portals between those dimensions.

An Indian anthropologist, who is also essentially a historian, brilliantly compels the reader to accompany him on a quest for hidden truths among the relics of Egypt, and despite the fact that Egypt holds within its scattered along the Nile provinces an extravagant treasure of artifacts, the author seems to be concerned with a minor letter that belongs to a Middle-Eastern Jewish merchant, a letter that mentions his Indian assistant. Bomma, the slave, was a property of the Tunisian Jewish merchant Abraham Ben Yiju, who adopted the path between Aden and Mangalore on the Malabar Coast for his trade. Bomma’s debut was in a letter sent to Ben Yiju from a fellow merchant, Khalaf ibn Ishaq, written in Aden in 1148. Throughout the book, consequently, Gosh tries to reconstruct the deeply sunk in history life of the Indian slave. Thus, the enthusiastic scholar attempts at building a virtual bridge between Asia and the Middle East by convening the reader’s focus to a lost period in the dimension of time. Amitav transforms such a simple remnant into an adventurous hunt, which could be traced back to his own fascination by the fact that the life of a slave has survived all of these centuries leading to our current historical period. The whole process contributes to prove the author’s sincere research oriented dedication and devotion. The anatomy of his book is composed of multiple segments: his present travels, his vigorous research, and historical tales related to the storyline, deliberately mixing history, anthropology and fiction in a single product of obvious tirelessness.

Jean-Leon Gerome – On the Desert (Public Domain)

Ghosh’s In an Antique Land also proves the author to be an eager traveler as much as a devoted anthropologist and social historian; notably, one of his remarkable qualities is his technique of simultaneously portraying both past and present events at the same time. On his frequent visits to the vast Egyptian capital, Cairo, he provides the historical background of the place or the monument close to his walks, thereafter, he paints an exact depiction of the scene in his present time. This is quite masterful as it functions to add to the superiority of his admirable blend of several dimensions. At certain times, his words feel like that of an ancient man on his journey of reminiscing through forgotten paths and antique remnants.

Amitav’s Antique Land presents the story behind some of the lost and forgotten treasures of Egypt, those being the Hebrew documents, which were located at the Synagogue of Ben Ezra. They are shown to be smuggled by European enthusiasts and scholars. The absurd passivity of the manner with which the Egyptian government and Hebrew families handled the intended disappearance of such invaluable texts constructs a crucial part in the issue, and remains in the state of being enigmatic. In his historical manifestations, Ghosh ventures to unfold the degraded image of Egypt in the eyes of Europeans. As he compares the meaning behind Egypt’s name in Arabic and English, he states that, “Europe’s apparently innocent ‘Egypt’ is therefore as much a metaphor as ‘Masr’, but a less benign one, almost as much a weapon as a word.” It is only convenient of Europeans, regarding their views on Egypt, to seize the opportunity of poor governance to procure such ancient documents to their possession. At a certain point, Amitav describes the reaction of a European millionaire who had come to Egypt to plunder some of the Hebrew texts; he states that the millionaire had been irritated by the number of natives who have asked him for some Baksheesh, whereas the Hebrew texts’ worth is greater than diamond. Such fragments in Amitav’s writings reveal his contempt for the arrogance of the higher classes, and a subtle semi-subconscious sympathy towards socially subaltern people.

One cannot help but feel remorse for the state of negligence with which the synagogue is regarded. As Ghosh steps near the original residence of such documents, he describes, “Fustat can be smelt before it is seen—it is a gigantic open refuse-pit, an immense rubbish-dump.”  This shows how Egyptians rarely see the gracious value beyond their historical landmarks. They are seemingly incapable of acknowledging the undeserved gifts bestowed upon them from the early phases of mankind, even to this very day. One recalls a recent incident of demolishing Hellenistic graves at Camp Caesar, Alexandria. Other than that, the process of repairing ancient Egyptian remnants is rather destructive than preservative.

Although In an Antique Land was published in 1993, Amaitav seems to expose the deterioration of the Egyptian mindset and a collective social condition which shall linger further than the time of his text, and is prone to be perpetual. By the end of chapter two, he writes:

“In the distance shanties grow in tiers upon the ruins, and they in turn fade gently imperceptibly, into the scraggy geometry of Cairo’s skyline—into a tableau of decay and regeneration, a metaphor for Masr.”

His insight accurately pierces through his surroundings, analyzing the present state of the country and predicts its seemingly perennial corruption.

Amitav Ghosh (Photograph by: David Shankbone)

Another aspect of ‘In an Antique Land’ that should not be left out of the scope of the reader’s focus is the amusing tale of a foreigner amidst the simple, rather less civilized Egyptian peasants. In the account of his residence at Lataifa, Amitav deeply delves into the daily life of the Fellah Egyptians, to the extent that he was referred to among them by ‘Ya Amitab.’ He mingles with people of various degrees of intellectuality and divergent conceptions, and shows genuine curiosity in their culture and traditional views; he encounters use of Egyptian proverbs and slang language, as in “beat the ten.” Additionally, he conveys a narrative of legendary stories that are believed to be true throughout Egypt; like a deviation of Amr ibn al-As’ conquest and the tradition of blood feud, “Thar”. Ghosh’s frequent persistence to collect and write down such cultural fragments is a reflection of his enthusiastic anthropological approach. Religious arguments between Amitav and Ustaz Mustafa are conducted through a collision of dissonant cultures; which results in a rather interesting read.

Amitav finds himself situated in a confrontation with several humiliating encounters during his stay in the Egyptian village. The vast difference between Indians and Egyptian peasants inevitably resulted in a vast array of uncomfortable conversations and particularly demeaning comments. One may experience great offence in such circumstances, and to imagine to what extent the then young scholar might have been harassed is a sufficient stimulant for sheer compassion. However, Amitav shows a great degree of understanding combined with a sort of philanthropist tolerance in his writing. Whether Ghosh had accepted such offences or not, his resilience and acknowledgement of diversity are to a great degree exhibited, he openly receives comments of profanity, regarding his religion, yet seizes the chance to illustrate the motives behind such traditional, Egyptian perspectives.

Ghosh’s visit to Lataifa had been prosperous on multiple planes, for not only did it establish the highly intriguing side of his book, it had much effect on the outcome of his research. While attempting to decipher some of the Hebrew texts, he found out that his newly acquired colloquial Arabic is essential to the process. He did know Arabic before going to Lataifa, due to a previous visit to Tunisia where he was taught a fair bit of the language’s basics. However, the dialect they spoke in the village had a bit of similarity to the one that had been used in the Hebrew texts, which naturally poured into the diligent researcher’s interest.

Amitav’s woven web of various tales lends the reader an experience of different sentiments and adventures, added to the fact that his parallel descriptions are quite precise and organized. A few of his subjective opinions are splattered throughout the book, which grants the reader better insight on the philosophy of the author with regards to certain issues in life. Ghosh’s instinctive modesty and care for the radically subaltern social classes could be somewhat concluded from his views, and the utter fact his whole research is concerned with the mention of a slave in a Middle-Eastern merchant’s letters. One wonders how such a mixture of elements in an artist would be portrayed in a fully fictional work of literature. Of course, historical facts and concrete objects could not limit the wondrous that is of Amitav. A depiction of his abstract manifestations would definitely be far more ethereal.

Co-writing: Alexander Darwish


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